Buy This Book: Mickey Mouse Color Sundays Volume 2: Robin Hood Rides Again
Listen: I love Robin Hood. Outside of Dracula, who I think we can all agree is pretty great, he’s probably my favorite public domain character in the history of fiction, and between the sidekicks, the secret headquarters, the recognizeable costume and the uneasy relationship with local law enforcement, he’s pretty much a direct ancestor to the kind of superheroes that we have today. So really, if there was anything that was going to get me back to being excited about the hardcovers reprinting Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips after the last volume left such a bad taste in my mouth, Mickey going on an adventure with Robin Hood was going to be the thing that did it.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what they did. The latest Mickey volume from Fantagraphics is a collection of Gottfredson’s full-color Sunday strips from 1936 to 1938 — plus a whole bunch of bonus features from his later career — that includes “The Robin Hood Adventure.” And folks, this one isn’t just a great story from a great creator, it’s the kind of story where I want to just start grabbing people on the street and telling them they have to read it, because it’s one of the weirdest things I have ever read.
I realize that I throw that around a lot here at ComicsAlliance, to the point where we’ve got an entire recurring column about the weirder corners of the comics industry, but this one… It goes above and beyond. It’s as bizarre as any superhero epic that you can think of, and the thing about it is that it’s bizarre in ways that you don’t expect. It fools you into thining that it’s going one way, and then switches it up with something even weirder.
Before we move on, though, it’s worth noting that despite being the story featured on the cover, it’s far from the only interesting part of this collection. There’s a lot to it, including Gottfredson’s later work and fill-in strips that go beyond just Mickey Mouse. There are a few Donald Duck strips in there that are interesting to me as a fan of Carl Barks, but the real gold for Disney fans has to be the collection of Gottfredson’s work on Treasury of Classic Tales, where he was called on to do adaptations of Disney’s film hits, like 101 Dalmatians and Sleeping Beauty.
There’s even a sequel to Snow White thrown in called The Seven Dwarfs and the Witch Queen that makes for some pretty interesting reading, but the weirdest thing by far is how on-model they are when you compare them to the films. I knew Gottfredson was an incredibly talented artist just from seeing what he did with Mickey, but seeing him recreate 101 Dalmatians for the comics page is a testament to how good he is at switching up his style into something completely different, even if the text piece about how he never really gets comfortable with the rotating cast feels pretty accurate.
As always, though, it’s the Mickey stuff that’s the centerpiece, even though the Sunday strips are a completely different animal from the daily adventures that I’ve been keeping up with in the main line of hardcovers. Rather than the daily strip’s focus on building up adventure and drama alongside the comedy, the Sunday strips are built more as gags. There’s definitely a narrative going on that connects from one story to the next, but they’re a lot looser, and as a result, they tend to get a lot weirder.
Or at least, that’s what happens when Mickey meets Robin Hood.
Now, keep in mind going into this that Mickey has had a ton of adventures of various kinds in the daily strip, including battling against super-zeppelins, foiling cattle rustlers as a cowboy, and even (most regrettably) starring in a movie based on Robinson Crusoe with a “native” that later becomes 100% real, despite being a fictional character the first time he appears. Even with all that, though, time travel to meet a legendary figure who “died over a thousand years ago” — Mickey seems pretty unclear about both Robin Hood’s status as a historical figure and the reign of King Richard I, but considering that he’s a mouse, I think we can forgive that — seems like it was a bit too far. Part of me wonders if it’s just the more fast-paced nature of the color strips that meant Gottfredson couldn’t take his time building up to something like a time machine like he did in the more sci-fi-oriented daily storylines, but whatever the reason, he goes in a completely different direction that’s also completely bananas.
See, the storyline starts off with Mickey getting into gardening, and buying out his local general store’s stock of health tonics so that he can mix them into one super-tonic that’ll help his plants. If you’re like me, you’ll read this and think “ah, got it, Mickey’s plants grow into giant beanstalks, he goes up to the clouds and ends up in fairy tale land, meets Robin Hood.” This, at least for Mickey Mouse, makes a lot of sense, and sure enough, there’s a beanstalk within a few strips.
But instead, Gottfredson pulls out a Russo Swerve of incredible porportions. Instead of climbing the beanstalk, Mickey just heads back to the general store and buys out their stock of reducing tonics so that he can make a shrinking tonic, then starts goofing around with both of his concoctions, inadvertently making a giant-sized housefly and shrinking himself down to about two inches tall. Then, with the fly chasing him, he hides from it by going into a book… and then goes into the book.
It’s amazingly weird, and kind of delightful. It feels like Gottfredson was going for the beanstalk angle and then decided at the last minute not to and had to scrabble around for something else, something that seems especially odd when you consider that ten years later, Mickey and the Beanstalk would become one of Disney’s most memorable animated shorts. The end result feels like this mad scramble, with even Mickey himself being incredulous at the idea that all it takes to go into the world of a book is just being small enough to physically walk into the pages.
Quick note: I realize that it’s equally weird to be surprised by the lack of realistic physics in a world whose most famous resident is a talking mouse who keeps a dog as a pet and as a fully sapient best friend. But still, you gotta draw the line somewhere.
What follows is a fantastic set of strips about Mickey joining up with the Merry Men. They’re amazingly clever and well paced, with some great gags. The strip where Mickey has to battle Little John with a quarterstaff to earn his spot in the gang is fantastic and pulls off this dynamic physical comedy that looks amazing even in a static comics page, and almost foreshadows a lot of the great physical comedy that Chuck Jones would go for in Warner Bros.’ Robin Hood Daffy almost 20 years later. The best bit by far, though, is when they send an extremely reluctant, law-abiding Mickey out to do some robbery of the rich:
Again, these stories are a product of their time. Looking back on it from 2014, Gottfredson gets into some pretty dicey territory in a sequence where Mickey goes to rescue a helpless damsel only to find out that she imprisoned herself in order to rope her rescuer into marriage, with Mickey claiming that “any dame as hard up as that wouldn’t be worth marryin’ anyway.” Not exactly the most heroic thing from our hero, but still worlds better than the stories in Phantom Blot.
Just in case you’re wondering, Mickey eventually just kind of gets tired of hanging out with Robin Hood and walks out of the book through the same illustration he used to get in, and goes right back to depression-era hijinx about learning ventriloquism. Seriously. That’s how it ends, and it’s great.
Even beyond “The Robin Hood Adventure,” it’s a pretty phenomenal collection that has a lot of varied stuff to offer. There’s the best of Gottfredson’s adventures, incredible comedy and interesting looks at other corners of the Disney comics empire, all underneath one cover.
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